The Girl Who Died Next Door - 6

There was hell to pay with my friend. And also the inevitable suspicion when I mentioned that I had spent the   evening with my neighbour instead. As it is, the sexual connotations of attractive neighbours are legendary. So I hemmed and hawed my way through our murky conversation and heaved a sigh of relief when she finally let me off the hook. Niyati could be immensely dogged in her persistence of the truth, especially when it came to me. Later in the day, Suvarna made her ghostly presence felt in a disturbingly inescapable manner. I was at the terrace above our office, sipping on Irish coffee and watching the construction workers atop a building in the distance. What really is the difference between stunts, adventure sports and construction work, I wondered. Out of the three, the last is actually the most productive, and I imagined, equally life-threatening and exhilarating. Yet, the profession never got its due, instead being relegated to the ranks of mundane, menial labour. We have strange standards and even stranger definitions. "Lord knows how they even call that stuff Irish coffee," my boss rasped, his voice permanently hoarse thanks to the incalculable number of cigarettes he smoked. I sighed imperceptibly and turned to nod at my ever-blasé Editor. "It's better than the Cappuccino," I said mildly. He was an impressive-looking man, tall and broad-built with distinguished salt and pepper hair and chunky red and black spectacle frames that added a hint of the eccentric. Viewers loved watching Anant Narayan on screen because he was focussed and opinionated without being overtly passionate. He made you gauge the forcefulness of his points from his eyes and his gestures rather than the tone of his voice. But as my boss, I often wished he would exhibit more enthusiasm and less criticism for my ideas. "We've been mulling over a special episode for Realty Check on how tragedy affects the value of real estate," he said. Uh oh, I knew where this was leading. "And I recalled you mentioning something about a girl that committed suicide in your neighbouring flat. Think you could dig up the details and perhaps arrange for an interview with the family?" Oh, don't you think that's a little callous, I wanted to ask. But all I said was, "We could speak to the present occupant." Anant's eyebrows rose in surprise. "They found a new tenant so soon? This could be the one exception to the trend," he mused. "Actually the occupant didn't know about the history of the flat when he rented it. But he was not perturbed even when he found out," I said. "Interesting. Handle this part of the episode then. Coordinate with Taruni," the boss said brusquely and left me alone with my Irish coffee and the intrepid construction workers in the distance. The only silver lining I could see was that this would give me a legitimate reason to spend time with Shayan.

After lunch, I curled up in my car for my customary afternoon catnap. I was used to the surreal, disturbing dreams that usually kept me company in my sleep during this time but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw that day. I saw that sweet, young face, heartbreakingly guileless and carefree and then I saw her eyes fly open in terror and nearly explode out of her face as the oily servant man snaked a rope around her neck and tightened it, the fibers fraying, her veins bulging, until those eyes fell shut, and that beautiful face slumped forward, inert, dead. I saw the satisfied, sadistic smirk snake across his leering face and I woke up, wanting to retch. The harsh afternoon sunlight streaming into my car helped me calm down as I marvelled at my twisted imagination. Of all the things to reconstruct, it had to be Suvarna's death. A girl who never even gave me the time of day. So why did I even care? I could feel the glimmer of a thought lurking right beneath my conscious mind but I couldn't quite grasp at it and the thought slipped away.

I wrapped up so late at work that day that my eyes were blurry, my bones weary and I had no idea what time it was when I finally headed home. All I was aware of was a burning desire to see Shayan. Common sense told me not to knock on his door so late in the night, yet again. But common sense be damned, said my hungry self. And I rang the bell.

"Well, if it isn't the subject of my portrait-to-be," smiled Shayan. He didn't look like he had been sleeping, I noted in vague relief. The smell of him made me want to sink into his arms and inhale deeply. "You look beat," he continued. I realised that it was time I said something. Instead, I stepped right into him, shut the door, and kissed the breath out of him.

I don't know where the bravado came from and I had no desire to question it. Perhaps it was my extreme tiredness which had blunted my inhibitions, rather like alcohol. But I wrapped my arms around his neck and I let my fingers rake his hair while I poured myself into his seductive lips, revelling in the feel of his body against mine and the uniquely intoxicating scent of his skin. In a matter of mere seconds, my body was wracked with intolerable desire, stoked further by his aggressive response to my kiss. I moaned when Shayan bit my lip, his hands moulding the flesh of my back near painfully. "So you do want me," I murmured when we finally paused, spent from consuming each other. He stroked my cheek gently, sending shivers rippling through my skin, denying me the satisfaction of a reply.

--To be continued--

Are we brave enough?

Travel. Be a food-blogger. Make a film. Write a book. Live in a faraway land. Be a popstar. Change the world. We have many dreams, big dreams, wonderful dreams. But for every second you spend thinking about your dream, there is someone out there actually living theirs. And it may not actually turn out to be all that dreamy, at least not in the beginning. But a dream lived through is better than one that is confined to a distant, never-occurring future.

Today, I read about Shruti Sharma, a woman who quit her 'cushy television job' to take up an undefined job at a neophyte cafe that grew to be Delhi's famous Kunzum Cafe, a one-of-a-kind establishment that combines the relaxing act of having coffee with rejuvenating discussions, jam sessions and exhibitions of art and photography. Shruti Sharma took the road less travelled and she is happier for it. What are you and me doing on these well-trodden paths with inevitable destinations? When will we muster the courage to go live the lives we write about and admire from afar? Everyone's a dreamer. But only the brave ones are livers.

Reaching for what you really want, regardless of what you might lose in the process is both frightening and exhilarating. And remember, there really is no guarantee that you will even get there. The only guarantee is that you will have an unforgettable journey, trying. So is it worth abandoning a secure job, a comforting routine and the solace of familiar faces, to find something new and beautiful? I know it is, else I wouldn't have my fictitious characters do just that.

Before you embark on this magical journey, the one we are all supposed to take, be certain that there is no other path you'd rather take. If I'm brutally honest with myself, what I really want is to conquer my fears. And I was on the right path not too long ago. I feared human interaction, going to new places on my own, confronting known faces for information, and so I chose a Bachelors in Mass Media instead of a Bachelor of Arts, where I knew I would have excelled at English Literature. I have never been happier for a radical, last-minute decision. In those three years, I grew confident, less shy and more capable. I also took up various jobs and honed my nascent socialising skills. However, somewhere along the way, I stopped challenging myself. I now find myself in the sort of cushy job that Shruti Sharma held and I find myself seeking solace in meaningless indulgences like alcohol and television shows.

For a long time, I thought my dream was to be a novelist. But now that I am, I realise that the dream was actually to write the ultimate novel, the one that would reflect that I had finally reached the place where life was supposed to take me. That's definitely not what I wrote. Also, travelling mentally is a poor substitute for physical travel, complete with dust, noise and people. Now, travelling at a level deeper than the mind, that's a different realm altogether.

I don't have much money. And unlike Shruti Sharma, I certainly can borrow none from my parents. But I do want to travel. I want to travel, get out of my shell like I did once before and transform those experiences into words worth reading and cherishing. I want to push my body to its limits by dancing, running, climbing, doing everything that it is humanly capable of, including sex. I want to delve deep into everything that remotely interests me and absorb it into my consciousness - be it music, language or art. I want to spend every waking moment doing something that I enjoy intensely, something that makes me feel alive with every fiber of my being. I want to stop wasting these precious moments away in useless emotions like guilt, jealousy, boredom and regret. I want instead to love, to wonder, to feel the deepest joy and the most lasting peace. I want, to reach the pinnacle of joy so I can finally surrender. 

The Girl Who Died Next Door - 5

I contemplate calling my parents. My cell phone lies on the sofa, inert, offering me not the slightest hope of sage advice. Outside, the streets stay cool and quiet, unhindered by the clatter of wheels and the unseemly chatter of passers-by. My mind is exactly the opposite. This morning, I woke up with a thousand voices in my head and all of them spoke of the same man - Shayan. Disbelief, mockery and dismissal - it was more than I could bear. Sub-consciously, I find myself moving to the veranda. I'm bare-foot and the stone floor beneath me is cold and alert. Furtively, I gaze to my right and what I see takes my breath away. The unyielding planes of his wide shoulders and lean, tanned torso are set aglow by the soft morning sunshine. Smoke rings billow idly from his mouth, as he paints rapturously. I strain to see the graceful movement of his fingers, the slight incline of his head as he attempts to perfect a stroke. Loose cotton pants, his garment of choice as I've learnt, compliment the ease with which he creates what I know will be a thing of beauty. I wonder what he smells like and I wish the wind would carry his fragrance to me. So great is his engrossment in the task before him that Shayan does not notice my desirous eyes. He turns slightly, obscuring his face but providing me a more fulfilling view of the rest of him. I feel unabashedly voyeuristic. I'm suddenly more aware of the wind lapping at my nightie, of the sunshine warming my skin. I hope that it's not Suvarna he's painting. Her spectre has been looming over my life uncomfortably close. I shut my eyes and imagine Shayan's arms around me, enveloping me with silken heat and tracing my curves with knowing fingers. A tiny breeze becomes my nightie's accomplice in teasing the sensitive backs of my knees. I open my eyes and the veranda  is empty but for the lone easel. I sigh, desolate and disappointed.
I bump into him while I'm rushing out to meet a friend, already late by half an hour and feverishly concocting plausible excuses in my head. "Is that just one perfume I smell?" he asks, putting both arms on my shoulders to stop me from colliding headlong into his leisurely stroll. The touch and the question, successfully throw me further off-balance and I gape at him like a startled fish. His hands are warm and for some reason, he smells of the sea. "Are you saying I've overdone it?" I smirk finally. "More like overpowered my senses," he says calmly, wiping the smirk of my face. He releases me, and thankfully, I don't fall. ", you just went for a walk?" I mumble, fidgeting with the lapel of my soft wool jacket. He nods, runs a few fingers through his longish, silky hair. "It's refreshingly quiet today. And I don't really like it at the house." I notice how he doesn't call it 'home'. Is Suvarna playing tricks on his mind? He does have dark circles under his eyes. I look up to see him regarding me, bemused. I blush furiously. Was I staring? Why does he unsettle me so? "Oh my god, I was already half an hour late and now you've made it even worse!" I blurt out, making a dash for my car. Shayan stops me with a hand on my arm. I pause but I don't look at him. "Don't go," he says softly. "You're anyway so late. There's no point." His words are hypnotic and they begin to make sense. I swallow. "Keep me company. I hate being alone in that house. It's more than depressing," Shayan continues. If I'm honest with myself, that sounds like the most appealing prospect in the entire world. "Yeah, I've anyway missed nearly half of the film," I say, trying to sound nonchalant. "Great, come on," Shayan says, putting a casual arm around my waist and embarrassing me with the resultant pooling of fire in my groin. With shaky fingers, I type an incoherent apology to my friend and switch the phone off. I'll explain later.
His house looks more orderly than it did the last time. I recall imagining it in shades of purple, coffee and cream. He has chosen mahogany and mauve instead. I can work with that, I think ridiculously. "Have you painted any new portraits?" I ask, following Shayan into the kitchen where he prepares coffee, oblivious to my eyes following every little movement of his incredibly graceful hands. The aroma of the Arabica beans mix he's using is rich and intoxicating. I wander back into the hall, wanting some distance from the man and the aroma. I can see books - tons of books, lining the walls, filling the shelves and crowding the couches. This is my own private wonderland. I run my fingers along the titles - quaint classics, modern literature, theses on art, music, poetry, dance. I'm mesmerised. And a violent shiver goes up my spine when I feel Shayan's hand on my shoulder. "I see you share my passion for books," he murmurs. I lick my lips and take a deep breath. I must not allow myself to be so affected by a man who doesn't even trust what I say. "Yes, books were my first love," I smile, accepting the mug of fragrant coffee. I take a sip and it's divine. "You make a mean cuppa coffee," I compliment him. "A skill I picked up from my Egyptian maid," he says. "You lived in Egypt?" "For a while. I had a job there doing commercial art for a local agency. It didn't pay much but I was in it for the adventure." I nod. I would love an opportunity like that. "So where do you keep your paintings?" I ask. "I haven't unpacked them yet," Shayan says. I wonder if he just doesn't want to show me. I do not ask the question I'm really dying to ask - whether he felt inclined to paint Suvarna again. "Somehow this house isn't quite what I thought it would be," he murmurs, almost talking to himself. "What do you mean? People would kill to live in this area of Bombay," I grin. Shayan stays impassive. "I'm very sensitive to the vibes of a place. And this place is heavy with something sad and dark." I can almost feel something hanging in the air as he speaks. The room dims visibly as the sun begins to bid goodbye and the long shadows cast across the hall where we sit, send nameless tingles up my nerves. "So you believe me about Suvarna?" I ask tentatively. After all, he is veritably admitting that the place is haunted by her presence. Shayan raises an eyebrow. "Not at all. I don't see the connection." Either he enjoys nettling me or he really is too thick to understand. "That's amazing, for someone so sensitive," I say with my trademark bite. "I told you - your portrait resembles Suvarna. And now you say you get negative vibes from the place. Doesn't it all add up?" I'm irrationally angry and I'm vaguely aware of blood pumping in my face. Shayan seems more fascinated by my lividness than what I'm trying to say. "So much passion in your anger," he murmurs, transfixed. "I may have to paint you after all." I try not to be pleased about that and fail monumentally. And then Shayan reaches out to caress my cheek ever so lightly with his thumb. "Warm, just like I thought." He's gazing at me not like I'm a woman he desires but like an interesting object he'd like to dissect. I have no idea how to feel about that. All I know is I want his eyes to drink in my face for as long as possible.
We sat like that in silence, observer and observed, until our coffees grew cold and the stars assumed reign of the sky. And when I left, it was only because I couldn't possibly sleep in the house where 16 year old Suvarna had snuffed out her life.